Fritz Fischer
War of Illusions

Although the creation of the Empire had produced concentration of political and economic power hitherto unknown in Germany there was a widespread feeling that German civilisation and German culture were on the decline. The outward display of strength—such, for example, was the argument of the popular Jena philosopher Rudolf Eucken—had led to an intellectual decline which showed itself in concern for material comfort and outward success. As a result the ideal, the 'real' values of life had been lost.

Parallel with the triumphant progress of industrialisation and capitalism went a cultural pessimism which admired the values of the pre-capitalist world and condemned the rational pursuit of profit, and political and economic liberalism. Although Germany's economy was capitalist and its citizens enjoyed the successes which had been achieved they did so with a bad conscience. This is one reason for the uncompromising rejection of the pacifist leanings in the Western world. They were despised and ridiculed as degenerate compared with the medieval ideal of chivalry. To contemporaries this difference was epitomised in the catch-phrase 'hawkers and heroes' (Handler und Helden).

Eucken and many others (such as his well-known colleague in Jena, the philosopher Max Wundt) therefore demanded a return to the German idealist movement which they saw as a period of flowering of everything that was best in Germany while ignoring the democratic aspirations of this period. Idealism was understood less as a philosophical system than as a way of life, a set of emotions and values, a substitute religion for the educated classes. Of Kant only the categorical imperative remained and this was reduced further to the obligation to obey the powers that be. The 'idealisation of power' was one of the main criteria of Wilhelmine Germany.

The return to a glorified past became clearest in the Fichte renaissance which was given a powerful stimulus by the centenary celebrations of the Napoleonic Wars. It was to Fichte's Deutschtumsphilosophie that Wilhelmine Germany felt indebted. According to this the Germans were 'original men, not men petrified in an arbitrary institution (democracy).' Of all the peoples it was the Germans who unmistakably possessed the seed of human perfection and to 'whom the lead in its development is committed.' This is an illustration of the tendency of the Wilhelminian age, noted by Georg Lukacs, to 'glorify Germany's social and political backwardness as a superior political and cultural form.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.